Republicans’ conflicting message: Embracing Trump election lie is key to prominence, just stop asking us about it
By Michael Kranish, Marianna Sotomayor and Jacqueline Alemany,
The Republican Party’s contorted response to Donald Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen was on stark display as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stood in the White House driveway.
McCarthy (R-Calif.) had helped engineer the ouster Wednesday of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as the No. 3 House Republican leader for saying former president Trump’s claim of a stolen election was a lie. Yet he insisted later that day, “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election.”
In fact, the majority of Republicans — spurred on by Trump and party leaders who for months have been spreading falsehoods and sowing doubts — say in polls that they still question the legitimacy of the election. Trump has continued to spread his lie, writing on his blog on Tuesday that he lost in “an election rigged and stolen from us.”
While many Republican members of Congress have acknowledged the reality of Joe Biden’s ascension to the White House, a number still twist themselves into political knots to avoid saying he did so fairly.
The result is that, as the week’s events dramatically unfolded, Republicans are still embracing, or at least tolerating, falsehoods about the election, setting it as a red line for those who want prominence in what essentially remains Trump’s party. Party leaders say they want to focus on the future and not re-litigate the election, but their allegiance to Trump means they can’t get away from his focus on the past.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who on Friday was elected to replace Cheney as chair of the House Republican Conference, ascended to her position only after spreading some of Trump’s false claims about the election. Although her voting record is more moderate than Cheney’s, she made clear that the ultimate test was loyalty to Trump, whom she called “the leader” of the party base.
Cheney, in turn, is using her ouster — and a suddenly bigger megaphone — to highlight what she considers to be the hypocrisy of the party’s positions. “We have to get people to vote for us, and we can’t do that if we are a party that’s based on a foundation of lies,” she said on Fox News. “I think what the former president is doing is dangerous.”
That put renewed focus on the question of whether the rank and file agree with Trump on his continuing claim that the election was stolen. When The Washington Post asked a number of Republicans on Capitol Hill whether they agreed with McCarthy’s statement that no one questioned Biden’s legitimacy, the response was sometimes obtuse and indirect.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, the most conservative wing of the party in Congress, responded: “What this is about is the person that’s communicating on behalf of Republicans in the House Representatives needs to be aligned with the people that elect us.”
But others have moved on from questioning Biden’s legitimacy. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of Trump’s strongest allies, said: “Yeah, he’s the president. I’ve said that all along.” At the same time, like many Republicans, he went on to question the system that elected Biden, saying, “I do think we should look at the election results, but yeah, he’s the president of the United States.”
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said it is a “gotcha question” to ask whether Biden was legitimately elected. He said that he does believe Biden is legitimate, “but it’s also true that many of us have concerns about how the election was conducted in November, and the country demands a debate about election integrity, and we shouldn’t shy away from that.”
Republicans stoked the questions about the legitimacy of the election despite the fact that more than 90 judges and courts rejected lawsuits seeking to overturn the outcome, and Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr, found that there was no widespread fraud. Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen incited a mob of insurrectionists to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Despite the lack of evidence, 139 Republican House members, including McCarthy, voted to challenge election results.
Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.) said he would vote “100 times” to contest the certification of the election “because I feel very strongly that what happened in the state of Georgia and Pennsylvania and in Arizona was wrong.” He applauded Georgia for passing an election law that Republicans said will make voting more secure but which Democrats said will make it harder for minorities to vote.
The continuing claim by Republicans that some states violated their laws in expanding ballot access may have helped foster the belief among many in the party’s base that the election was stolen.
A CNN poll released in April found that 70 percent of Republicans said that Biden did not legitimately win enough votes to be elected. The survey found a deep split between party members about election security, with 76 percent of Democrats saying it was too hard to vote, while 87 percent of Republicans said the rules weren’t strict enough.
Geoff Kabaservice, who chronicled the transformation of the GOP in his 2012 book, “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party,” said in an interview that party members are clinging to Trump’s false claims about the election to protect their own reelection.
“These people are afraid of their base,” Kabaservice said. “They know that if they actually come out and forthrightly tell these 70 percent of Republicans who believe Joe Biden did not legitimately win the election, that the base will turn against them, that they’ll end up with a primary challenge, Trump himself will get involved and they’ll lose and they’ll be out of politics.”
Even McCarthy, as the leader of House Republicans, feels compelled to deliver conflicting message out of self-preservation, Kabaservice said.
“He can say one thing, either behind closed doors or to reporters in a place like Washington. But he’s not going to go out on the road with Trump and say everyone acknowledges that Joe Biden is a legitimate president. He’s not going to do it. People don’t want to stand up against Trump on this issue.”
McCarthy, asked by The Post whether he believed there was fraud in the 2020 election, did not respond.
The refusal by many in the party to fully break from Trump and his false claims has hobbled Republicans from forming a coherent message for the future, according to some observers.
“I don’t think we can have an honest reckoning about how to expand the party and win presidential elections in the future without acknowledging that he lost and how,” said Michael Steel, a former aide to former House speaker John A. Boehner, a Republican from Ohio. Steel now represents Dominion Voting Systems, which has taken legal action against Fox News and Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, denying that the company was involved in voting fraud.
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) said many Republicans want to focus on “election irregularities.”
“There are a lot of things that people are still pursuing — I think they should pursue them to their conclusion,” he said.
In Arizona, the Republican-controlled Senate ordered a review of votes in Maricopa County, where officials have said the tallies are legitimate.
Some Republican members of Congress have continued to stoke the idea that Biden lost. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said at a rally that Trump is “my president. . . . Do you guys really think [Biden] won?”
Rep. Claudia Tenney (R.-N.Y.), asked in an interview with The Post what she thought about Cheney’s statement that it is a lie to say the election was stolen, responded: “I think there are a lot of irregularities and questions that need to be answered. I don’t know why anybody would reject an audit. We need to go back and look at whether or not things were done properly, why rules were changed at the last minute.”
Tenney said she has concerns about voting problems because “I lived it,” referring to the fact that her election was not certified until a judge’s ruling in February that she won by 109 votes.
On Saturday, Trump weighed in once again with his thoughts on the results of the election, the legitimacy of which McCarthy had said no one was questioning.
“The 2020 Presidential Election was, by far, the greatest Election Fraud in the history of our Country,” he wrote on his blog.